Your “book” is talking about you. And it isn’t saying good things

Derek Walker

“Your portfolio is not your friend.”

That’s how you crush a creative. My heart broke as the words came out of me. I could see the pain in the young writer’s eyes.

“You are so much better than this work. Look at your lines here and here,” I continued, pointing at examples in his book, hinting at his real potential as a copywriter. “Man, you’re going to be a great creative, you’ve got some smart and creative insights but they’re buried in this book.”

Please don’t read this as my attempt to be nice, to leave this writer with some hope. I am not that nice of a person. I’m not. I’m not a mean person, either. (I was raised by parents who told me when I wasn’t good at something. Thank God they stopped me from singing before I killed someone.)

The young writer started breathing again, and we went over every piece in his book. Together we organized it with a new pace and flow. We recognized work that deserved to belong there, and work that didn’t. We identified pieces that needed improvement to better demonstrate his real potential with greater impact – the “wow factor.”

He went away to work on his portfolio.

A couple of weeks later, we were back reviewing his book. But he was different, more confident. I couldn’t help but smile. There it was: that swagger that comes from knowing the work in your portfolio is strong.

Right here, I want to point out how huge this is: He came back. I understand how in love we are with our work, but we have to open to criticism. Not all of it is going to be right for you but listen, really listen. If I had an opening, I would have hired him for the fact that he wanted to be better. Accepting criticism is something we all need to master.

“I can see you and your portfolio are finally friends,” I say to him. We both laughed. The second meeting was much shorter. And a few weeks later, he was getting interviews.

Do our portfolios really have our backs, or are they stabbing our careers in the back?

The whole experience got me thinking, how many of us can really say that our portfolios are actually our friends?

Oh, they pretend to be, but what are they really saying about us to others? Do our books have our best interest at heart? Can we trust them to tell people all the great things about us as creatives?

Believe it or not, I have a couple of friends. Yeah, even I’m shocked. And if you ask them about me, they say the most amazing things. Heck, sometimes if I’m standing there, I don’t even recognize the person they’re talking about. According to them, I’m an incredible creative. And man, it feels so great to hear them talk about me with some admiration. It’s also intimidating because I want to live up to everything they’ve said.

I used to feel that way about my portfolio, until that experience with the young creative. It caused me to look at my portfolio, and realized it might not be as good a friend as I’d thought.

We trust our portfolios to tell anyone and everyone paying attention how creative we can be, to sing praise of our creative brilliance.

Our portfolios are not our friends. They may actually be working against our careers.

There are few things more carved in stone in the advertising community than our collective view of portfolios, and how important they are for judging creative ability. But are today’s books true indicators of creative ability?

Not now. They used to be. Can they be again?

Now there have never been any formal “lords” of advertising, meeting in some secret location dispensing edicts, but there have always been rules. And sadly, for a creative industry, we are slow to challenge the rules, even the unspoken ones. Which go something like this:

- Students, recent graduates and very junior creatives (the number of years vary but we are generally talking 0 - 4 here) can have speculative (spec) work in their portfolios.

- Creatives beyond 4 or 5 years should have no spec work at all.

- No advertising agency should ever display spec work at all, under any circumstance. 

(This deserves a blog all of its own. More to come in a later blog)

“Break any of these rules at your own peril.”

I know recruiters, creative directors, agencies and even clients who adhere to this rule with a fierce devotion. They will dismiss candidates, no matter how brilliant the work, at the first sight of any spec work.

And no one sees a problem with that.

Let’s think about it for a second. It is more important to show “real work” than to show “real potential.”

I hear you, I hear you screaming, “But how will we know if the person can work in a team?” or “How will we know this person can deal with clients and feedback?”

Ah, maybe you should look at the candidate’s freaking resumes!! Or maybe call the references!! Isn’t a resume meant to be evidence of a verifiable work history?

A resume should provide a summary of your work experience, skills, abilities and accomplishments. Need to know if a person can work in a team or take direction? How about checking the job experiences and dates. Most people will supply references you can contact, and actually talk to. Too busy? Then you have bigger issues to address.

So, if resumes do that, then what are we expecting from portfolios?

How about letting the portfolio determine a person’s problem-solving capabilities and creative potential? You know, the things we hire creatives to do. (Crazy talk I know.)

We’re looking at portfolios all wrong.

Truth-telling time. We’ve become lazy. We discovered reviewing “real work” was easier than taking the time to go through portfolios with “spec” work — and having to get into the candidate’s mindset. Creative jobs aren’t bank jobs; they don’t follow the typical rules of regular jobs. You have to know what to look for — and that’s not mediocrity, no matter how many forgettable magazine ads or TV spots a creative director finds in someone’s book.

A portfolio is supposed to represent a creative’s best work, a testament of your creative thinking and ability. And many in and around advertising believe that displaying only “real work” in a portfolio will demonstrate this. Come on! (If you believe that, then you need to pee in a small cup because you are doing some real drugs!)

Allow me to explain why this is ass-backwards. (Please prepare for some massive generalizations! This is purely for example, I know there are other factors and conditions that play a part here.)

Imagine that “Person A” works at a less-than-stellar (okay, crappy) agency (and we all know there are some soul crushing/career killing agencies out here) under creative direction or agency management that isn’t brave, on client accounts that don’t allow for work that helps the brand stand out or that speaks to people – then how is this person supposed to have a portfolio of “real-world” work that demonstrates true potential? It doesn’t even come close most of the time. How many agencies are going to fall over each other to interview this creative? Not many, if any. This person’s chances of breaking into “better agency” are slim to none, and slim has left town.

Our portfolios are not our friends.

Now, let’s say “Person B” works at one of the top agencies. Things go entirely differently. This creative is exposed to the processes, support and management to foster the creation of work that stands out. This person’s portfolio is filled with “real work” that people fawn all over. He/she gets interviewed by other top agencies, he/she can command great salaries, get placed on choice accounts, promotions are thrown at him/her. This person becomes a superstar.

Now, does this mean the “Person B” is more creative or a better creative? Does it mean that “Person A” is incapable of doing great work?

Of course not, but anyone reasonable can see how we can draw these conclusions. Out here in the real world, we pass judgment on people’s careers using this exact system. What if we have been wrong? What if portfolios have been lying to us? How many talented and creative people have been relegated to a career of working at mediocre shops?

The thought of this has troubled my soul. It should cause anyone who is charged with managing and growing an agency or creative department to pause, and question what we are doing.

Can you see how our adherence to the insistence of having “real work” in portfolios has created artificial barriers to finding the best talents? We complain about a “brain drain,” but we’ve embraced a practice that prevents us from recognizing the creative potential of candidates.

Absolute madness.

Our portfolios are not our friends.

Requiring “real work” isn’t about a person’s creative potential, it’s all about determining a person’s capacity to be someone else’s bitch.

Here is the part that should keep us all up at night. WE WON’T EVEN ASK “WHY?”

- Why does the work have to be real/produced?

- Why are we looking at portfolios in the first place?

- Why can’t we change the structure and purpose of a portfolio?

- Hell, why haven’t we even asked “why?”

Are you hiring the person for his/her potential to produce great work?

Or

Are you hiring him/her for the ability to take orders and produce less than stellar work?

Time to tell the truth, and shame the devil: the majority of “real work” being produced in advertising and marketing is mediocre at best. At best. Just status quo. Business as usual. And we want to use this as “the” standard for determining a person’s creative potential?

There are those who actually believe that real work shows that a creative can power-through layers of suggestions, concerns, objections, politics and bureaucracy, and still produce great work! Male bovine excrement!

Most real work is an orgy of ideas at best, and like any orgy everyone ends up getting screwed or I’ve been told (sorry but I need you have to have that image in your head anytime you insist on “real work”).

“So, what’s the solution Derek?”

I’m not sure.

Even if we don’t change anything about our portfolios, we need to put some thought into our portfolios.

It is time to question the whole “real work” thing for seasoned professionals. Also, creatives need to be more selective about what they show in their portfolios, and the number of pieces. For the love of all that is holy, please edit yourself! Show that you put some thought into your portfolio.

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see portfolios filled with “real work,” but it needs to be great work.

How about showing what survived the approval process, and what you would have done if they had let you?

How about using roughs along with the finished work that shows how you arrived at finished idea?

Before we do any of this, let’s question how we can better display and evaluate creative potential. Let’s redefine our expectations of a portfolio.

Can’t we see that the idea that we are not judging people on their ability is more than a possibility? It’s a sad reality. Each day, amazing talent is marooned at bad agencies because of our insistence on seeing only “real work.” Rather than the BEST work. Work that makes us thinks, “Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.” That makes us want to hire that creatives in the first place.

Please don’t feed me that “male bovine excrement” line that if creatives wanted great work in their books badly enough, they would find a way. We know that is seldom the case.

I’ve got a crazy idea: Let’s get creative about how we define our creative and problem-solving abilities.

Don’t get it twisted, I’m not being idealistic. I’m being a businessperson. Our current system of looking at “real work” is an inaccurate determiner of creative potential. It simply isn’t. It wastes both time and money. We’ve created an artificial barrier to finding better employees, and that’s killing our industry.

We want to think our portfolios are our friends, but they’re out here talking bad about us.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He tweets @dereklwalker

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